CHURCH AND SPORTS: ‘Upward Basketball’ effective family outreach

When the Apostle Paul penned the words, “I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” in Philippians 3:14, he wasn’t thinking of basketball, as the sport wasn’t invented until 18 centuries later.

That hasn’t stopped a wave of churches from using the “Upward Basketball” ministry to help meet their goal of reaching boys and girls for Christ and teaching them a few sports skills along the way.
According to its promotional material, Upward Basketball is “an evangelistic sports ministry designed to promote community outreach, develop volunteer leadership, and share the love of Christ with children and their families, using something as simple as a basketball.”

And judging from the churches that have used the sports ministry, Upward is reaching its goal. The program is designed for kindergarten through sixth-grade boys and girls, and in addition to the games and practices, it also includes Bible studies, memory verses, character development, self-esteem, and most important, the presentation of the gospel to players and their parents.

Brent Thorn, minister of education and recreation at First Baptist, Lindale, said the church began its Upward program in 1999, and has about 270 children each year. “About one fourth are ours, half are churched elsewhere, and a fourth are not churched at all.”

Thorn said parents and players appreciate the family Christian atmosphere of Upward, which, unfortunately, is not the norm in kids’ sports leagues.

“I think it is a great outreach for the church. You get non-church attenders to come, everyone gets a Bible and everyone gets a devotional for eight weeks.”

Thorn said most of the Upward workers are people within the church who weren’t serving anywhere else and Upward provided a niche for them.

One key attribute to the program’s success, Thorn said, is the prayer emphasis. “We had 100 prayer pins to give out to the people of the church. I gave them to our watchman prayer ministry.”

The program runs eight weeks, beginning in January, Thorn said. At the end of the season, First Baptist Lindale brings in a peaker for the awards ceremony, which includes a video highlighting the kids playing throughout the season. “You get a lot of people to come to the ceremony. The gym was wall-to-wall people last year.”

Dewayne Yates, recreation minister at First Baptist of Henderson, said his church’s program runs about 260 to 280 children, of which about half are from outside the congregation. “Every year we see 20 to 30 decisions that we follow up on,” Yates said, adding, “We have also had families who have joined our church because of the program.”

Despite the success, when the Upward program first started, there were some questions on whether it would work and if the parents or children would come just for the basketball and balk at the devotional and spiritual elements. Those fears have proven to not be true.

“It’s Christ first,” Yates said. “Every year we tell them (the players and the leaders) in the first week’s devotional that our main goal is teach boys and girls about Jesus Christ. We always have the devotionals at every halftime and at the end of the season we have between 800 and 1,000 people in attendance at the closing ceremonies.”

Considering that the church’s entire Sunday School program runs just about that many, Yates feels like the program is a great success.

In addition to the regular eight-week season, Henderson also offers a one-week camp, which works especially well for the younger players to learn the basics. It too has a Bible emphasis and goes from 8 a.m. to noon.

Damon Berry, sports and recreation minister at Cottonwood Creek Baptist Church in Allen, also agreed that its two-year involvement with Upward has been very successful. He said that about 75 children have received Christ through the program, which has had 500 participants in the basketball and cheerleading events.

Also, Berry said that some families searched the Internet looking for a church that had an Upward program and ended up joining the church.

“Next year, we plan on adding Upward Soccer to the schedule,” Berry said. Soccer is the latest addition to the Upward sports family.

Tom Grubbs, minister of singles and recreation at First Baptist Church, Corinth, said Upward has reached their expectations of teaching children basketball skills and also reaching people outside the church. While difficult to nail down exactly how many people have been saved through the program, Grubbs said more than 100 people who have been baptized have been a part of the Upward program.

The Corinth program runs 250-plus children and Grubbs said more than 800 came to its awards night. Grubbs said he has 212 volunteers involved with Upward.

Despite the big response and the number of volunteers needed, all of those interviewed said the Upward program is well planned, and that it is an easy program to administer.

Thorn said the Upward national organization does a lot of the administration, but “you’ve got to do a lot of it too.”

The Upward organization provides the training materials, practice drills and even the suggested devotionals for the coaches to teach spiritual truths and fundamentals of basketball. For the younger children, score is not kept and care is made to make sure every player plays and competition is handled properly.

“The kids learn basketball skills, but the emphasis is not winning?it is really for the kids to enjoy the sport in a Christian environment. We give them a Bible, learn memory verses, and year after year you have an opportunity to minister to the family,” Thorn said.

Children get awards immediately following the game, including a white star for the most Christ-like attitude and a green star for learning the memory verse.

“It’s a very efficient organization,” Thorn said. “You never have to wonder whether you’ll be getting uniforms or the materials. It’s a lot of work even with as much as they do for you. But it is a huge outreach to the church.”

Yates said that with all the positives, “our biggest problem is getting referees,” but other than that, Upward succeeds in its mission.

Grubbs said that despite the work, the best benefit from Upward is the tremendous ministry it has been able to have to families. So much so that this year, the program at Corinth is expanding to include Upward cheerleading, which should increase the church’s ministry opportunities, Grubbs said.

For more information or to find a church with a ministry near you, go to www.upward.org.

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